For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of lines. This week, Kimberly Johnson, whose poem “Funerals” appears in our Spring 2020 issue, examines two stanzas from John Berryman's “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.”
It’s impossible for me to separate these two central stanzas from “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” John Berryman’s sprawling imaginative encounter with the earliest published poet of colonial New England. Berryman’s 1956 poem speaks both to and with Bradstreet, giving voice to the shocks and despairs and ambushing joys of 17th-century domestic life. To my mind, its climactic stanzas occur here, roughly midway through the poem, when Berryman’s lines dramatize Anne’s thoughts during childbirth.
hide me forever I work thrust I must free
now I all muscles & bones concentrate
what is living from dying?
Simon I must leave you so untidy
Monster you are killing me Be sure
I’ll have you later Women do endure
I can can no longer
and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me
drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!
One proud tug greens heaven. Marvellous,
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.
Mountainous, woman not breaks and will bend:
sways God nearby: anguish comes to an end.
Blossomed Sarah, and I
blossom. Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.
—John Berryman, from “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”
With its disorienting grammar, stanza 20 conveys the chaos and physical confusion of a body working to move another body out of itself. The verbs jam against one another: “I work thrust I must free,” their quick succession leading to the sonic and syntactic opening at the line’s ending. But that opening contracts into the corporeal clench of the following line. “What is living from dying?” asks the speaker, registering both the real existential peril of childbirth and also the larger epistemological question of mortality: what is the difference between living and dying, since both are characterized by pain? The stanza continues to reveal itself in melee, one thought barreling into the next without the stops of punctuation, the physical extremity culminating in the desperate admission “I can can no longer.” The poem suspends for a half-second, the silence after the penultimate line a suspense of an uncertain beat, or two, and then—relievingly—“it passes.” The child is born “and I am me” again.
Again, but with a difference, which stanza 21 elaborates: “drencht & powerful.” After the breathless headlong of stanza 20, stanza 21 strides into its triumphs. The sentences are complete, the idiom not pleading but commanding. The speaker has flourished through peril to a new authority not yet seen in Berryman’s poem.
These two stanzas exemplify the dynamic interplay between syntax and sound that I admire so much in Berryman generally and “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” particularly. Each stanza displays bold, inventive description and a sly rhyme scheme, but the two stanzas together offer a master class in tone, moving from the precipitous tumult of stanza 20 to the stately declarations of stanza 21, from the erratic consonantal clash of stanza 20 to stanza 21’s confident clarity. Moving from abjection to exultation, Berryman’s two stanzas together range across all of human experience.